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LOWRIDER, HIGH HOPES

From a bare frame, he created this bike.
In his mind, he saw it come together.
He looked to others for the freshest ideas.
Out of patience and skill came beauty.

But what, he wondered, does it take to win? The boy from the projects is scoping out his competition. He slurps a Coke and nibbles on peanut-butter crackers, browsing the crowded aisles behind a Glendale bicycle shop named Build-A-Bike. Customized bikes dot the rows on little plots divvied up as at a swap meet, gleaming jewels bathed in elaborate displays.

"There's a lot of pretty bikes here," James Cano says. He sits low to the ground, 15 years old, swaddled in baggy pants and a denim Dickies jacket. His mother and stepsisters fidget nearby, Sunday afternoon crisp but bright, clouds interrupting the January sunlight like passing trains. Event organizers couldn't be happier. No rain.

Check it out--there's gotta be a few hundred people here. And 64 sparkling bikes in the lot--last fall's lowrider show at Phoenix Civic Plaza drew only 24. The promoters circulated fliers, but they never imagined this. "This is the biggest lowrider bicycle show that Arizona has ever seen," Build-A-Bike co-owner Nancy Morris beams over the loudspeaker, her pulpit the bed of a red pickup truck.

From there, she looks over a world of little Michelangelos, sculptors straining to draw life from inanimate form. But there's a dash of Dr. Seuss thrown in. It's a world of candy paint jobs and Batman-style welding and pedals that barely elude the ground. The bikes are gold- and chrome-dipped proclamations of individual artistry, much of it homage to a vanguard cradled in Southern California. Which is where all of this began.

It was out of the kingdom of lowrider cars that it grew 20 years ago, the cry of young Chicanos in East Los Angeles who couldn't wait until they were of driving age to invest their rides with time and money and pride. But the modified Schwinn Sting-Rays, with their distinctive banana seats and sissy-bar struts, were often clumsy and heavy, and in the late Seventies, they abdicated popularity to the swifter BMX.

In the early Nineties, lowrider bicycles began spreading again like spores, and they have never been more popular, this time expanding beyond their Chicano roots. L.A. County-based Lowrider Bicycle magazine, itself an offspring of Lowrider magazine, debuted in late 1993 with 75,000 sold-out copies; now it features bikes from Hawaii, Iowa and Japan. The Schwinn Sting-Ray, which the Schwinn Bicycle Company stopped producing in 1983 amid dwindling sales, is still the choice frame, but the magazine has spawned its own line of replica frames and custom accessories to sponge off demand. You can get the basic Aztlan Cruiser with Baby Daytons (double-spoked wheels), for example, for $269.95.

But for the lowrider purist, that's painting by numbers. The real prize lies in creativity, in patient yard-sale searches for authentic parts and in hands-on work and initiative. On average, $300 goes into the making of a lowrider bike, and some of the wilder modifications, stereo systems and hydraulics and fish tanks, for heaven's sakes, all the things that nudge these contraptions closer to what they really long to be--customized cars--can run the tab into the thousands.

Clouds steal the sun again, and the afternoon turns chilly. James Cano volunteers his jacket to his mom, Frances, who shuffles nearby in a black Betty Boop tee shirt. James is a freshman at Apollo High, and tomorrow, he'll go back to school for the first time since he was booted out for a combination of excessive absences and fighting. Things fall apart, as they say. You can only be called "wetback" so many times.

James already has sunk several hundred dollars into "Wicked," a metallic-blue '66 Schwinn, all of it original parts, the frame purchased right here at Build-A-Bike. With the paint job, he got lucky--his uncle knew somebody, and it was that easy. And he has bigger dreams in store.

You have to see these things to believe them, to understand why most exist not for riding but for show. There's "Badness," a '72 Murray with a green cobra mural and gold dice dangling under the seat. Down the aisle, there's "Bloody Revenge," a red '77 Rampor three-wheeler so low it smooches the pavement, three gold mirrors riding down each handlebar.

And in the last row, the captivating "Black Widow," a black '74 Schwinn Sting-Ray with gold rims, black-velour seat, mini steering wheel between stretched handlebars, whitewall tires and the highlight, a weblike metal pattern welded into the frame, shining in kaleidoscopic burgundy. Drenched in angel hair, the Black Widow stands on a black sheet dotted with smoked-glass plates, its owner a shy kid in stylish denim.

A lot of parents use the hobby as incentive--keep up the grades, collect your allowance and get that accessory you've been waiting for. Others say it's a way to keep kids out of trouble and off the streets. Frances Cano herself says she's thankful for Build-A-Bike; she usually knows where to find her son. Kids learn patience and persistence and pride, and for a kid like James, it's more than even that, because no matter how good you are with your hands, there are things that slip out of your control, things like a bad temper or whether a family stays together, and at least a bike--well, sometimes that's about the most solid thing there can be.

The grass near Frances Cano's duplex apartment is dotted with household items, available for a small price on a Saturday afternoon. Why? It's a long story: a divorce, a second marriage and separation, three foster daughters, a layoff from her job at the Foot Locker, another employer who won't make good on owed wages and now here they are holding yard sales to make ends meet. "This is how we live in the projects," she says, almost apologetically.

James is on the front stoop with his bike. He brings it out here to wash it sometimes. One time, his friend Steve Vasquez told him the bike looked wicked, so that's what James named it. He and Steve and Steve's brother David go cruising on Fridays. James rides third.

Most lowrider-bike enthusiasts are 14 to 16 years old, and James is right there in the curve. About a quarter of them are 18 or older--what Lowrider Bicycle magazine technical editor Saul Vargas calls the hard-core group, guys who pour their paychecks into the hobby--and a lot of them build model cars, too. So many, in fact, that the magazine, now bimonthly, surrenders half of each issue to the craft.

Frances started her son on models when he was about 8. She figured it would keep him close to home and out of trouble. He's had his ups and downs; single parenting is no ride in the park. They have an open, affectionate relationship. She and her second husband, whom she married when James was 2, separated, but remain friendly; sometimes he takes them places and talks about putting things back together. But it is her first husband whom James looks to when he wants help with his bike.

"I know when James started making models, he would get frustrated when it wouldn't stay together," she says. "I would tell him, you need to go away from it for a while, then go back to it."

"I still have problems with that," James says.
He was a miracle baby. Six were conceived before him, and he was the only one who made it. He was born a month and a half early, and weighed five pounds. But the doctor said his lungs were formed perfectly.

"When he was little," says Frances Cano, "he was always running around with a screwdriver. He would tell his grandmother, 'I will fickadit for you.' He fickaditted a lot of things."

Then came the Legos, and Frances noticed he could make a car that would become two or three other vehicles. And he started noticing lowriders.

"I like the way they look," James says. "I'd see lowrider trucks riding around, and I'd get all excited. I like to be involved in stuff like that--hydraulics, winning, things I could be proud of."

His real father, who has since remarried and lives in the Valley, used to take him to car shows. Then there was the '62 Impala his parents had back when they were together, a beautiful ride they christened "Brown Baby." James remembers it only from pictures, and he brings them out now from a handy place, yellowed photos with white borders and impossible skies, his mother reclining in sultry poses before the camera, younger and smiling uneasily atop the old Impala.

It was a nice car.
He used to tell his mother how much he liked it. But one day, it got wrecked, like so many other things, and that was the end of that.

With new life breathed into a faded fad, the mail pile at Lowrider Bicycle magazine has included more and more snapshots showing promise from the East Coast, the South and the Midwest. "It's not like out here," says Saul Vargas, the magazine's bike-tech editor, "but they're getting better."

In California, north is pitted against south in a war of invention, and most of the subculture's innovators and cover bikes continue to spring from the Golden State. Vargas hasn't been to Phoenix yet, but he's seen photos. "They're coming up with some keen modifications out there," he says. "Where they lag is chrome. I give them six months to a year before they start producing cover bicycles."

But it wasn't long ago that the parts themselves were hard to come by locally, and it was into this void that Nancy Morris and Cliff Tyler descended from Anchorage, Alaska. The grand plan at first did not reveal itself--there were stints at Circle K and Denny's, then one day, Morris spotted a lowrider bike and was hooked for good.

The two looked around the Valley and found accessories were hard to find, and with the help of stretched-out credit cards, Build-A-Bike was born near 43rd Avenue and Bethany Home Road in Glendale. Business has been increasingly flush. Morris says the store has taken on a community role, too, and a lot of single parents like Frances Cano appreciate their kids having a place to hang out. "I have moms call me to see if their kids are here," Morris says. "A lot of them don't have dads around. You can tell the ones who do, because they're the ones who have gold on their bikes and the best paint jobs."

As popularity balloons, Build-A-Bike's customers have become a mix of all ethnicities and age brackets, and for a while, there was even a 52-year-old guy from Sanderson Ford, a longtime bike collector, who was coming in two, three times a week to drool over all the custom parts.

Cliff Tyler is Morris' fianc, and he learned most of what he knows at dad's gas station, where if you didn't have the tool you needed, you made one. He gets about as excited as some of the kids do about the bikes, and he keeps a spiral notebook in which he jots down ideas. Today, he's working on another one--a sissy-bar that shoots down from the rear of the seat, with blinking lights.

"All this stuff's been done before, if you think about it," Tyler says. "It's one thing to think of an idea, but to actually make it work, that's the challenge. That's what I like about it."

And that's what he tells the kids. Don't just get the latest thing. Lead the way, if you can. Innovations don't stay exclusive for long.

Before all of that can happen, though, old frames must be sanded free of old paint so new paint will stick. Lowbikers often weld shaped metal plates to their frames or add cut-to-fit cardboard with bondo, a putty mixed with a hardener for body filling. After sanding off rough edges and spraying it with primer, the frame is ready for painting and whatever else the lowbikers have dreamed up.

"There are no rules," Morris says. "The people that come in here are so creative. Dads are building bikes for their kids, and they come in and see one of these and go, 'Wow, a 26-inch frame.' People now are talking about [creating] a second bike."

Lowrider Bicycle features a how-to section spelling out some processes, but those and the more elaborate, prize-winning alterations aren't exactly do-it-yourself material for youngsters. "It comes down to the people who have access to welding and machines," says tech editor Vargas, who, at 23, has claimed a few trophies himself. "I have complete access to a machine shop. I've built several feature bikes with a budget of $600. We did all the work ourselves. But then you have other kids--one guy spent $2,200, and it still wasn't as good as some of the ones we did for $600."

And so this is what a kid like James Cano is up against out there. Morris and Tyler, then, when they planned a lowrider-bike show along with the Valley's Seductive Car Club, wanted a less exclusive atmosphere. They decided to start, first off, by replacing the $15-to-$25 entry fee typically charged at big-name shows with a $2 fee and canned food for Westside Food Bank.

The kids wander the aisles at the Build-A-Bike/Seductive Car Club bike show in January, bestowing pronouncements of sorriness and badness on 64 bikes from around the Valley. Marvin Martian murals, mini champagne glasses, eight-ball themes, Southwestern chic . . . and there's a three-wheeler with a wicker basket riding its back, planted amid a picnic-style display of Coca-Cola memorabilia, pitcher and glasses, a bucket of grapes and apples. "That's bad, huh?" one kid with a Boyz Wit Toyz bike-club cap says to another. "Like if you rode it to the park, huh?"

Morris scrambles to the mike and warns that official judging will begin in five minutes; all preparations must be completed now. She praises the large turnout. "This is the best day of my life," she says as she comes down.

For James Cano, the show is a welcome distraction. Sometimes his attitude toward his bike doesn't carry over into school, and after he and his mom visited his ailing grandmother in Mexico last fall, he got into trouble for fighting with a classmate. He says the guy had taunted him about his ancestry. Both were suspended, but with the time James had already missed in Mexico, he had too many absences to finish the semester.

He's hoping, nervously, that his father will make it to the show; so many other dads are here, and his father's son by his new marriage had expressed some interest in getting into lowrider bikes, too.

Arizona has never seen more lowrider bikes in one place. Just the same, more formidable competition will appear in about six weeks, at the annual show in Mesa. A pudgy guy in a black tee shirt struts around harrumphingly, a member of Phoenix's Prestige car and bike club. He tells one of today's participants he's got a bike he's poured $2,000 into, but he's saving it for the big-name show in Mesa.

James is out of earshot when the big guy finds "Wicked" at the end of the third row of bikes. "See that little hole in the fender there?" Pudgy says to the other guy. "All those things, little things, in a big show, are points taken away. But a lot of judges don't know what they're looking for. Little show like this."

At 2 p.m., the clipboard-armed judges--Cliff Tyler of Build-A-Bike, one of Seductive Car Club's co-presidents and a guy who does gold dipping for the store--begin. A hydraulic carhop is staged out front to occupy the youngsters. Bikes are divided into categories to distinguish between, say, a fully customized bike like the Black Widow or an all-original-parts Schwinn like Wicked. The Seductive co-president is serene, expressionless, judging from a standing distance. Tyler's style is more intense, on his haunches, studied looks under lifted sunglasses.

The rumor was that Lowrider Bicycle magazine photographers would be here, but they turn out to be no-shows. So does James' dad.

When it is over, the Black Widow claims first prize in its division, and the Coca-Cola bike wins for best display. Wicked does not place at all.

Where did he go wrong? What more should he have done to the bike? From a bare frame, he built it, and obviously, something wasn't good enough. He saw it in his mind, he hunted down the right parts, he spent hours cleaning and fixing it--what happened? He studies the magazine like a Biblical scholar, and there was a bike, he remembers now, completely done up in chain; maybe that's what he'll do next, for the big show in March.

No--instead of all chain, it'll be half-and-half. He'll chop the handlebars where they bend, near the base and up at the handles, and just put chain in there. He'll have to find someone, maybe his father, to help out with the welding and the expense. And the pedals, too--same thing. Those will take a lot longer.

That's what I do, he says. I look at my competition. I get ideas. Sometimes I get real nervous. I wonder what I'm going to do with my bike, what's next.

"He stresses out," says Morris. "I'm trying to get him to chill out. He wants his bike to be perfect."

But now it's already March 1, two and a half weeks until the Mesa show, and James is running out of time. While other guys are signing up for last-minute gold plating, James' father, who works double shifts, hasn't returned his calls. Sometimes James wonders whether his messages are being delivered at all. (New Times couldn't reach him, either.)

People are backing out on him. Like his uncle--he said he would help with the paint job. Maybe someone will sponsor him, an auto-body shop or something, in trade for free advertisement at the show. He'll wear a cap, put a business card on the bike, whatever.

It's hard for his mom, he says. She has to feed four kids and the dogs and all that. He tells her not to worry about it, he'll find a way to do it on his own. He's almost there. He just needs a few more things.

He walks his bicycle over to Build-A-Bike and tells Morris his forks, which he bought used, are a little out of alignment.

He's already added stuff to the bike since the January show--new wing nuts, shiny tail pipes, a pair of custom mirrors he made himself--but he's sure those out-of-whack forks will spell doom with the judges. It's getting to the point where he's going to have to pawn some of his video games to pay for all the work this bike needs.

"I'm in trouble," he says.
Morris checks it out. The misalignment is barely noticeable, but there it is. "I think you should enter, anyway," she says, stroking the frame like the mane of a fine thoroughbred. "You know, you learn something every show. I think it's a beautiful bike."

James kneels next to it, hands hard on his head, discouraged.
He gets up, parks Wicked just outside the door and returns to check on a model car he left with Tyler overnight for some custom upholstery work. People are coming in and out of the shop, parents, members of Seductive's bike club, kids just hanging out. Once James had plans for another bike, but it was stolen last summer: He stopped to play video games at a grocery store, some guys fed quarters into the machine for him, and when he went back outside, it was gone.

Wicked is his baby.
"I think I need to get me some new fenders," he says to himself.
He does not notice the kids hovering near the doorway.
"I want a bike nobody can hang with."
Too wrapped up in thought to realize what is happening.
"A real eye-catcher."

Outside, his fellow artists, the little Michelangelos, are buzzing over his custom mirrors.

His friend Steve Vasquez gave him the idea for the mirrors, but it was James who made it work. He is coy about how. The mirrors are regular mirrors, but black-and-white Aztec images stare back, like one of those messages pressed to the glass in a fortunetelling eight ball. The images blend in so well, it's hard to tell whether they're etched in there or planted illustrations or what.

But James Cano's mirrors have generated an uproar in these circles, so Morris lets James display them in a showcase alongside sissy-bar slipcovers and mini mud flaps and custom tire valves. James says he'll ask for $2 over the price of each mirror he customizes, if anybody decides to order one. It's like he's embarrassed to ask for more. The attention surprises him, and he tries hard to conceal his pleasure.

As time ticks down before the big show in Mesa, bike clubs hold weekend car washes up and down 43rd Avenue to fund last-minute work. Successful clubs demand serious attitudes, because taking a bike from frame to gem requires dedication, and they don't want to be embarrassed in a show. Members pay dues, and are expected to put in their share of labor at fund raisers. Some are so fussy about appearance that their bikes don't hit the streets without a bottle of Armor-All strapped to the seat.

James meets with members of his club, First Impressions, at a community center in Maryvale for sanding and bondo sessions. James' bike is the only one near done, and considering the time remaining, it's hard to believe any of the others will be soup by then.

"This is the biggest show," Steve says of the event. Witness the $25 entry fee. And the $200 prize. "You know, those big bikes, like Gold Rush, my bike can't pass them. But hopefully I'll get something."

Gold Rush, a gold-and-chrome masterpiece from Oxnard, California, is one of the badder bikes out there, one of the few to make the magazine as a centerfold pullout. Another is "Schwinnbad," a '66 Schwinn with scimitar forks cut from steel and a fantastic dragon-and-sorcerer mural that stretches from a broad tank at front to a bondoed sheet-metal section in back. "Field of Dreams," "Felix the Cat"--these are their Mona Lisas, their Rhapsodies in Blue.

One afternoon, the two friends admire similar artwork in the latest issue of the magazine.

"Check out that bondo."
"Nah, check out the handlebars."
"That looks like a Harley."

Sal Jacobo, one of Seductive's co-presidents, walks in with a bevy of kids attending an organizational club meeting at the store. He pulls something out of his pocket, a mirror he's designed, and shows it to Morris. "Look," he says. James watches without being obvious. The mirror is the same concept as his, except there's a color photograph of Jacobo's car in there.

"Hmmm," Morris says, nodding cryptically.
One of the kids goes: "You did that?"
Jacobo: "I draw good, huh?"

Tyler smiles wryly. Yet another idea that didn't belong to one person for very long.

James is out on the porch fixing a loose chain on his sister's bike when the phone rings. He drops his work, goes and answers the phone. It's Nancy Morris from Build-A-Bike.

"Oh, really?" he says after a moment. "Wow!"
Moments before, Morris tells him, a burly man and his two sons had come to Build-A-Bike for the second day in a row, and this time, dad is sure: He'd like to order a pair of mirrors, one for each of his boys. He's got one of the mirrors in his hand. That's some nice work right there, he says.

James says he had to admit he freaked a little when he saw Jacobo's mirror. Morris talks him down, says you can't worry about other people. "Other people do what we do," she tells him, "but they don't really know how to do everything that we do. Besides, his didn't look as good as yours."

Which he also had to admit.
Maybe it's all a little crazy, investing so much in something so insignificant, but on the other hand, all artists are insignificant until the right wave comes along, and there are too many pedal-pushing Picassos now to ignore. Organizers of the Mesa show said they expected as many as 75 lowrider bicycles from around the Southwest, an all-time Valley high. The bikes might not work as traditional art, but in their pure, built-from-scratch form, they are tributes to the power of personal expression and dedication, even if daddy--or someone--did help a little bit. Pride is what turns the wheels, the same force that birthed lowriding from Chicanos who found industrial work in California's post-World War II economic boom, who could then afford homes--and cars. Lowriding is now a million-dollar business.

From a bare frame, James Cano created this bike, and with his vision in jeopardy, with the rumblings of the big show growing louder and his cavalry nowhere in sight, the people at Build-A-Bike say they'll give their welding process a try and do James' chain handlebars as an experiment. For free. Then, with Hollywood timing, his father finally calls and says he'll spring for the $40 required to dip the bars in chrome.

The Mesa competition will probably squash his hopes for a trophy like a bug. But in a sense, he has already won, his triumph a self-confidence found in a brief-but-palpable furor inspired among his peers that showed he had it in him.

"That right there, that's a perfect example of what I'm trying to get these kids to do," Tyler says of James' mirrors. "Be unique. Be creative. Don't just be like everybody else. That's why these kids get into gangs, so they can go be like everybody else in the gang. I tell them, be your own man. Come up with your own ideas. And that's a perfect example."

"I feel very proud of my son for doing all these things, because my son could be out there [getting into trouble] with all these other boys," Frances Cano says. "Even though he hasn't won any trophies, he has still built this bike."

Of the competition, James says: "I do think I have a chance. I believe in my bike. I believe in myself. If I don't win this one, I'll fix up my bike better so I can win next time." Then, he says, will come the real eye-catcher, the trike he says he's going to build for his mom and call "The Rapture," which in the Scriptures represents a time when those who believe are rewarded and those who don't are left behind.

He'll bondo the frame like a stretched hourglass and have an end-to-end mural that, you know, he was just thinking, will have God up here and then over here, a bunch of spirits like they're flying up to heaven, and can't you just see it, it's going to be wicked, it's going to be bad, a real eye-opener.

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Marc Ramirez